Monday, October 25, 2010

Justice for Laralee

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Murder on Deerfoot Road
by Robert A. Waters

April 26, 1994. Another beautiful sun-drenched spring afternoon in DeLand, Florida. At 3:15 p.m., fifteen-year-old Laralee Spear gets off her school bus at South Spring Garden Avenue. The petite, friendly cheerleader begins walking home along Deerfoot Road.

She never makes it.

A half hour later, Barbara Spear calls police to report her daughter missing.

In 1994, DeLand has less than 20,000 residents. It’s known as a friendly town, home to the prestigious Stetson University. Unlike Daytona Beach, its raucous neighbor to the north, major crimes are rare in the community.

Officers from the Deland Police Department and Volusia County Sheriff’s Office converge on Deerfoot Road. Blue lights beat against homes on either side of the street. Yellow crime scene tape is strung up. Uniformed cops and suited detectives move about as neighbors watch.

Several witnesses inform cops that they saw a black low-rider truck speeding away from the area at about the time the girl disappeared. Barbara Spear tells investigators her daughter was happy at home and school and would never run away. She’s an A-student, and has many friends. Laralee likes to ride her bike, sing in the choir at church, and play her violin. She loves animals, especially horses. She hopes to become a pediatrician, her mother says.

Cops quickly get the message--there’s no reason for Laralee to disappear.

The searchers spread out. Within an hour, the sheriff’s office sends a helicopter up. The chopper starts at the scene of the disappearance and circles out.

It’s been two hours now and time is of the essence. Then a call comes in, the kind of call cops hate. The helicopter pilot has spied a body lying on the back-yard patio of a burned-out house. It’s only a quarter-mile from where Laralee vanished.

Cops have been called to this house before. Teenagers often use the place for drug parties, neighbors say. There’s an old railroad trestle nearby. The charred home and yard surrounding it has been sealed off because of complaints, but that doesn’t stop the parties.

Behind the blackened corpse of the building, detectives spot Laralee.

There’s no question who it is. Her hands are tied. Much of her clothing is missing. Blood pools beneath her.

Cops are supposed to be Joe Friday matter-of-fact, but a slow anger boils inside the responders. Senseless. That’s the word for what they see. It’s obvious from the first that someone abducted Laralee, attempted to sexually assault her, and shot her multiple times in the back of the head. She may have been beaten as well.

The days wear on. Some of Laralee’s clothes are found scattered alongside Deerfoot Road. The killer must have discarded them as he drove away.

Cops release a profile of the killer. He would be young, investigators inform the media, maybe a teen. He may have a new handgun he likes to shoot. He may speak incessantly about Laralee’s murder. He may have a quick temper and he may have left the area shortly after the shooting. Cops think the killer is inexperienced in murder. He may have kidnapped Laralee and attempted to rape her. When she fought back, he shot her and fled.

Nine months later, detectives hone in on a suspect. Bobby Raleigh, a twenty-year-old ne’er-do-well and drug dealer, is arrested for Laralee’s murder. He’s easy to find since he’s sitting in jail for killing two rival drug dealers. But no matter how hard they try, investigators can’t find the evidence to link him to the kidnap and murder of Laralee. Cops conclude that he has an air-tight alibi and no physical evidence connects him to the crime. Eventually, Bobby Raleigh is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the drug-related murders. The charges in Laralee’s case are dropped for lack of sufficient evidence.

For sixteen years now, the case has gone unsolved. Laralee was recently featured on Northeast Florida Crime Stoppers Cold Case Playing Cards. Here's hoping someone will step forward and name this brutal killer.

The fleeting innocence of a young girl vanished with one senseless horrifying act and justice needs to be served.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Gainesville's Unsolved Murders

Gator Nation Cold Cases
by Robert A. Waters

Gainesville is the home of the University of Florida. For many years, it was the epitome of a small Southern college town. Now it’s the home of Gator Nation and all that that entails. Over the years, Gainesville has amassed an impressive list of unsolved crimes. Perhaps the most infamous was the Tiffany Sessions kidnapping. In 1989, the pretty co-ed went out for a jog and never came home. Her disappearance is still a mystery. But there are other lesser-known cases that also need closure.

On the night of December 29, 1979, Suzanne Powell, 20, left the Majik Market convenience store where she worked and drove to what was then the Atlantic Bank on 3838 NW 13th Street. As she did every night, she intended to deposit receipts from the business. Powell, a student at the University of Florida, drove up to the night deposit box. As she slowed to make the drop, a shotgun blast shattered the windshield of her car. When police arrived, they found Powell lying dead on the ground with financial documents from the store scattered about. She’d been murdered for $ 275. Although investigators developed two suspects, escaped prisoners Readus Sheperd and Thomas E. Willard, they had no evidence other than the word of an anonymous jailhouse informant. (Recently, one of Sheperd’s close relatives informed investigators that he’d once admitted to killing a woman in Gainesville.) Sheperd is now long-dead and Willard disappeared never to be seen again. In fact, there was never any physical evidence at all against the two. After more than thirty years, the murder remains unsolved.

In the early morning hours of December 1, 1994, the Gainesville Fire Department responded to reports of a blaze at 1031 SE 3rd Avenue. Firefighters found two bodies inside a burning house. The victims were identified as Treva Gernannt, 88, and her daughter, Emily Wallace, 66. Their deaths were not caused by the flames, as first suspected. Gernannt died of numerous stab wounds. Investigators could never determine the cause of Wallace’s death, but the fact that there was no carbon monoxide in her body indicated that she was dead before the fire started. Gernannt and Wallace were well-known for their church work and for helping the homeless. In fact, their home was near a path used by transients. It is thought that the two Christian ladies may have attempted to help the wrong person and ended up getting murdered. It’s been more than fifteen years and this murder is still a mystery.
On June 27, 2005 , Phillip “Brian” Sweat answered a knock on his door at 4024 SW 38th Street and was stabbed to death. As he lay dying, Sweat called 911 and described the attack. His assailant was a black male, he said, wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt and jeans. Before he could relay additional information, he told the dispatcher: “I’m getting light-headed. I’m going to die.” With that, his voice stopped. Investigators have theorized that Sweat was taking a nap when he heard a knock on the door. At that time, a would-be burglar (who’d rung the doorbell to determine whether someone was home) attacked Sweat, stabbing him. His home was located near a group of what cops called “seedy” hotels. Sweat’s case has been featured on Florida’s Cold Case Playing Cards. These cards were distributed to inmates in the state’s prisons with the hope of generating leads on unsolved cases. For five years, Phillip Sweat's unknown killer has walked free in the heart of the Gator Nation.

Julie Cohen, 22, was the first female to be admitted into the University of Florida’s Graduate Forestry program. In March, 1977, she was alone in the Austin Carey Memorial Forest working on a class project. Part of her research consisted of taking samples from local trees and grasses. When Cohen didn’t show up for her class the next day, fellow students began a massive search. Her remains were found in the forest--she’d been strangled with her own bra. Investigators theorized that the attack was “personal or maybe sexual.” There were signs of a struggle, but little evidence was left at the scene. Cops set up roadblocks along Waldo Road but no one claimed to have seen anything unusual. Detectives recently submitted items to a specialty lab in hopes of getting “touch” DNA (cells from the killer that may have transferred onto Cohen’s clothing). It’s been 33 years since Julie Cohen was murdered. No suspect has ever been charged.

Unknown killers walk the same streets, shop the same stores, and attend the same sporting events we do. Their pasts hide dark secrets that are buried with their victims. Here’s hoping technology or conscience will someday shed a light on these murders.

Monday, October 11, 2010

$ 267,000 Reward Offered for Info on Slaying of Beloved Officer

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Three years have passed since Sergeant Christopher Reyka was murdered
by Robert A. Waters

A recent newspaper article reported that in the last three decades, 180,000 murders have gone unsolved in the United States. In some cases, investigators claim to know the killer but don’t have enough evidence to charge him or her. In other instances, the perpetrator is unknown. Either way, thousands of murderers get away with their crimes every year. In this sad case, a highly respected officer was gunned down while going about his duty. To date, no one has been charged with the brutal crime.

At about 1:15 a.m., on August 10, 2007, Broward County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Christopher Reyka pulled his cruiser behind Walgreens Pharmacy at 960 South Pompano Parkway in Pompano Beach, Florida. In the shadows, Sgt. Reyka noticed two cars idling. His suspicions aroused, he ran Florida license tag number F168UJ and found that the plate had been stolen.

Three months earlier, a gang of robbers had begun targeting twenty-four hour pharmacies in the area. Taken during the heists were prescription drugs which are easily sold on the street.

Although no one except the killers saw what happened next, several citizens called 911 reporting gunfire in the area. When deputies arrived on the scene, they found Sgt. Reyka slumped beside his car. Ten rounds had been fired at him--five had hit him in areas not protected by his bullet-proof vest. A forensics examination determined that the bullets had come from a 9mm semiautomatic pistol.

Sgt. Reyka died en route to the hospital.

Detectives located a security camera from the Isle of Capri casino that had filmed a white car speeding away from the scene of the murder two minutes after the shooting. A review of the video-tape determined that the vehicle was likely a 1998-2000 Ford Crown Victoria or 1995-2004 Mercury Grand Marquis.

It is thought that Sgt. Reyka came upon a robbery that was about to happen.

Four months after the murder, eleven suspects in the drugstore robberies were arrested. Three were suspected of being involved in the murder of Sgt. Reyka. They are Timothy “Black Arms” Johnson, 24; Gerald “Dread” Joshua, 28; and Deitrick “Real Deal” Johnson, 22. Investigators, however, have yet to find the murder weapon and don’t have enough evidence to charge any of the suspects with the murder of Sgt. Reyka.

“We think it’s definitely not a coincidence that Chris was killed at a drug store,” Sheriff Al Lamberti said. “With a rash of robberies before and robberies afterwards, then the arrests were made. Now [the robberies] have stopped. We think Chris interrupted something at that drug store.”

In 2010, Gerald Joshua was convicted of robbery with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Deitrick Johnson is currently awaiting trial on multiple robbery and weapons charges. His Broward County criminal record includes 32 arrests. The trial of Timothy Johnson, who also faces multiple charges, is also pending.

Sgt. Christopher Reyka was a veteran of the U. S. Marine Corps. He'd worked for eighteen years with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and had recently been honored as Employee of the Month. He was active in his church and in his community, participating in fund-raising events for Special Olympics and serving as a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts. He left behind a wife, two sons, and two daughters.

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There is currently a $ 267,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Sgt. Reyka’s killer or killers. If you have any knowledge about the identity of those involved in this crime, please call 954-493-8477.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Law Enforcement Patch Collection

When I see a cop, the first thing I look at is his or her patches...
by Robert A. Waters

Those who regularly read my blog know that I love to collect law enforcement patches. I recently purchased a pristine collection from a former police officer. Below are a few samples from this beautiful group.

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